Ethics vs. Morality

Posted on June 20, 2013 by Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

Is there a difference between morality and ethics?

Not historically. In fact, the word “morality” comes from moralis, a Latin word that Cicero coined as a translation of the Greek word ethikos, which is the origin of the term “ethics.” Thus “morality” is to “ethics” what chapeau is to “hat” or caliente is to “hot.”

It’s true that many, perhaps most, people make a distinction between morality and ethics, but the problem is that no two people seem to agree about what that distinction is. Test this claim by asking five people you know, “Do you believe there is a difference between ethics and morality? If so, what is that difference?” You’ll get responses like these:

•  Ethics has to do with social standards; morality is about personal beliefs.
•  Ethics comes from secular institutions, whereas morality is a religious phenomenon.
•  Ethical judgments are absolute and objective; moral judgments are relative and subjective.

Not only do folks differ about what the distinction between the concepts is; they also differ about how to define each one. Even those who believe there is no difference between ethics and morality may differ over how to define them.

Yow! This sure is confusing. But it doesn’t have to be, because just about everyone understands that both ethics and morality have to do with identifying right conduct and good character. To keep everyone on the same page, and to honor the linguistic history of these two noble concepts, it’s much better to treat ethical and moral as synonymous.

In this newsletter (and in all of my writing and public speaking), I avoid using the word moral, because it makes some people see red when I interchange that word with ethical. I’d rather focus on what’s really important — discovering the best ways to respond to difficult situations and understanding why those approaches are right. This is, I suspect, why you’re reading this in the first place.

In a future blog post, I’ll examine the question, “What gets in the way of doing the right thing?”

Thank you for reading my blog!


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